Gut Check

Hiring the right people is difficult, but patience and preparation will help ensure your instincts don't lead you astray.

“When it comes to
hiring,” one CFO recently said, “I have to
admit that I feel more lucky than good” any
time a new finance staffer works out well. “If
there are any best practices in this area,” he
adds, “I sure don’t know about them.”

Many finance chiefs can relate. Hiring is
a black art even in the best of times, defying
analytical rigor and instead relying on certain
soft skills and instincts that few people feel
confident about. Add to that the current
intense demand for finance talent, which can
make any candidate seem like a good choice,
and the stage is set for poor decisions that
may haunt the company (not to mention the
boss) for years.

There are, in fact, a number of purported
“best practices” in hiring, put forward by
human-resource experts, consultants, technology
companies, testing firms, and others.
These approaches typically combine quasi-scientific
interviewing techniques, personality tests,
and background checks. They seem more intent on
repelling frauds and felons than on meeting a CFO’s
true need: deciding who among two to four well-qualified
finalists (usually winnowed down by a
recruiter or a company’s HR department) is the best
person for key direct-reporting slots in treasury,
audit, or related posts.

Even experts admit that, ultimately, any offer of
employment depends on instinct, but there are a
number of useful steps you can take to augment your
gut reactions to job candidates — and to avoid acting
on your worst instincts.

Beware the Rush Job

“The biggest mistake I see any hiring manager make,”
says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., senior vice president for HR
at IAC/InterActiveCorp, “is to go into the process ill-prepared.
You’ll probably spend more time with key
reports than with your spouse, and to some extent you
have to take hiring as seriously as you take courting.”

First, Taylor advises, write down
exactly what you’re looking for so that you
can steer the recruiter in the best direction. Toni Smit, vice president of human
resources and administration at Harvard
Business School Publishing, says that
some hiring managers develop a matrix
that includes technical and soft skills and
fill in the grid with, say, a 1-to-10 scoring
system. “This can also help you develop
the list of questions you’ll ask in the interview,”
says Smit. “If you decide that diplomacy
is a skill that matters, ask the candidate
for an example of how he or she handled
a delicate situation without ruffling
too many feathers.”

Taylor recommends “situational interviewing,”
in which you ask open-ended
questions that give you a window into
how candidates have handled a variety of
real-life situations. “By the time you see
the finalists,” he says, “you can be fairly
sure they possess the technical skills.
What you want to focus on is fit within
the company’s culture, because when
someone fails it’s almost always because
they don’t fit in well.”

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